December 17, 2011

The Remains of the Day

Stevens, the butler of the grand English house, Darlington Hall, spends his vacation driving around the English country and reminiscing on his career. He reflects on what qualities create a great butler and whether he fits the bill. He thinks a great deal about his former colleague, Miss Kenton, whom he is on his way to visit.

It turns out that he and Miss Kenton could have been an item, but that Stevens was too sunk in his professionalism to allow anything real to grow. Miss Kenton eventually leaves to marry a man she does not love. Stevens recently received a letter from her indicating that she had left her husband and that she missed Darlington Hall. Stevens takes off on his “motoring trip” to see if she might come back to Darlington Hall and solve his current staffing problem. (He’s romantic that way.)

Stevens also spends a good amount of time thinking about his former employer Lord Darlington. He worked for Lord D until his death a few years before. Now he is working for an American gentleman who bought the house and the help along with it. Stevens truly felt that serving Lord D was part of being a great butler. Lord D tried between World War I and II to broker peace and understanding between the English and German people. He had noble intentions, but the result was that he ended up as a pawn of the Nazi regime. After the war it was clear that he had been played a fool and he died in minor disgrace.

Stevens finally meets with Miss Kenton only to discover that she has gone back to her husband. She admits that it took her many years to grow to love her husband, but that she does love him and that his is a kind man. Miss Kenton also reflects that some of the unhappiness she has felt throughout the years and communicated in their sometimes correspondence has been in part due to her wondering what her life might have been like if she and Stevens had ended up together.

The book ends with Stevens on his final stop before going home. He shrugs off his memories and begins to think of how he might better serve his new employer.

Other Thoughts
  • I find it exceedingly interesting that a person of Japanese descent wrote this novel (from Nagasaki too). It’s set in post-WWII England. I wondered as I was reading it if I would see some shading related to his cultural origins. If anything, I would say that in thinking of the novel in that light I can see similarities between the dignity Stevens tries to maintain and the importance of respect in Japanese culture. Stevens spent a lot of time trying to maintain face

  • Why must we be so long winded? Why? And so formal? I don’t know that there is ever a mention of Stevens’ Christian name in the entire novel. The long winding memories of past glories were somewhat bewildering at times because you weren’t sure quite where he was going or what the ultimate goal was.
  • It seemed like Stevens in the end did achieve his goal of being a great butler, but at the expense of the rest of his life. He claimed that part of being great was to completely inhabit the professional persona so that nothing could rattle you. You had to be a butler at all times unless you were totally alone. The result is that he either completely missed or willfully ignored the fact that Miss Kenton liked him. Her repeated efforts to flirt were shot down. I would have left too if I had been Miss Kenton and had spent years trying to crack that shell. Stevens ends up alone, with no friends, no wife, and no “great” employer.
  • One of my favorite movies is the remake of Sabrina. There’s a scene where the housekeeper brings Sabrina’s dad tea and some flowers “to brighten your room.” He asks her if she’s been reading The Remains of the Day again. I always wondered exactly what it was he meant. Now I know. Miss Kenton tried on several occasions to bring Stevens flowers for his office, to brighten the room. He considered it infringing on his turf. It’s sort of nice to cross that little item off my list of unanswered questions.
  • I’m not really sure of the overall point of the whole novel. Stevens doesn’t get his way. Miss Kenton doesn’t return with him. His memory trail seems to imply that he is less than satisfied after all with the supposedly great Lord Darlington. The best I can see is that he learns that he shouldn’t live in the past. The very last scene sees Stevens being advised by his companion on a park bench to enjoy the evening of his life (the remains of the day), maybe even retire, and to look forward to what tomorrow holds. But then, negating that advice, the novel ends with Stevens formulating a plan to improve his bantering skills to please his new boss. So who knows.

The library was out of Gone with the Wind. I skipped ahead to Crime and Punishment. It’s over 500 pages, so it’ll be a while before you get a post on that.

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